Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Bass Buggin'

 I didn’t get to the lake until three o’clock that afternoon. It’s a lake that sort of fell off my radar, though I don’t know why. I ‘ve enjoyed good fishing in the past but I guess when there’s plenty of water to fish some of the places get lost or forgotten in the shuffle. It’s one of a group of four lakes, all with the same name followed by the unimaginative designation of a number. I pushed my boat into Number Three to cast a half-mile of the rocky south shoreline.   



No need to go far from the dock to start fishing. I took my position up front and dropped the trolling motor in place.  I started with a yellow/red deer hair diver-type fly that looked good to me. A halfhearted hit from a small fish on the third cast seemed like a good sign, and fifteen minutes later I was fighting a good smallmouth that didn’t want to give up. I like fish photos as well as anyone and it was the kind of fish you’d like to have a photo of, but I didn’t have the camera set up like I do for those pics when I’m fishing solo.

Despite the early action, things came to a standstill after that. Moving slowly out from the shore I couldn’t raise another fish. Time to try something else, I lowered the anchor to change flies. You can sit and gaze into a fly box at rows of deer hair, foam, and rubber legs for quite a while, trying to decide what the bass may hunger for. I picked a Dahlberg Diver and was just lifting the anchor when I heard the sound of an approaching outboard motor. 

  

This is a good-sized lake, over a thousand acres and the west and northern shorelines are heavily developed. I fish the shallow bays and islands around the south end, in the unpopulated boundary of the state park – around Big Toe Island, Ruthies Island, and through the shallow narrows towards Bear Bay. Most anglers head out into the main lake for walleyes and I had to wonder what the heck a boat was doing coming right at me. As the distance closed I recognized the boat and uniform of the conservation officer. He pulled up next to me and introduced himself before asking for my license. Then I showed the PFD I wasn't wearing before he asked about a throwable floatation device. I remembered the boat cushion that's been resting for years at the bottom of the compartment under the rear seat. I opened the lid and pulled out another life jacket and my rainsuit, all the time hoping that cushion was still there. It was and the C.O. informed me that it needed to be out and easily accessible.  

The lawman was friendly and I’m sure he’s heard it all, but I couldn’t resist pointing out that I was alone and if I fell out of the boat, I’d have to climb back in to toss the cushion and then jump back into the lake to use it. He politely chuckled but like I said, he’s heard it before. Then he was interested in my fly-fishing gear and we enjoyed a nice visit before he was off to patrol the rest of the lake.  

It was nearing suppertime, and I was working my way back when the bass exploded on a green foam sort of diver I started tying last year. The fly has no official name – I just call it my guide fly because it’s easy to tie with minimal material. “Bearded Bass Bug” has been suggested. We’ll see.   





Suddenly, I was into them. Smallmouth fight like the dickens, and when they’re enough to fill the net you know you have something. I don’t know how many were landed, but I lost a couple I wish I hadn’t. 



The weather has been stormy and fishing in wind, rain, and lightning is not for me, but the fishing was too good to ignore so I was back a few days later. It started slow with a couple of half-hearted hits from small fish, before a slashing strike from a small pike had me glad for wire bite guards. Most of the hits came when I let the fly land and sit for agonizingly long minutes. An hour or so later I stopped for a coffee break and to change flies. After casting the area, I left the fly on the water while pulling the anchor. I kind of chuckled to myself at the thought of a strike when gripping a handful of anchor rope. Sure enough, a bass hit the fly and spit it out before I could grab my rod. Glad no one saw that! 




 

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Fishing again...

  I had my knit hat stretched down tight and the hood of my lined sweatshirt pulled up over that. I’d just motored away from the dock and was already wishing for my heavy coat. The water temperature read 49 degrees and the stiff north breeze wasn’t helping. But fishing season was open, and I had some winter-tied bass bugs I couldn’t wait to use. I should have known, considering the weather, what it would be like. A couple of days earlier I’d enjoyed some good luck out of my little jon boat catching pike on a small river. And in my eagerness, along with those new deer-hair bass bugs, thought I could beat the odds. 

There’s something about coming over the hill and spotting the water through the trees that gets the heart pumping. Though it was a beautiful sunny day, the temperature was only 37 degrees when I left my driveway. Twenty minutes later it had risen to forty when I pushed the boat into the lake.  





During the previous weeks I’d spent my time with the chainsaw and brush cutter keeping the home place at least a little bit civilized and checking my trail cameras. There’s plenty of wildlife around here and it’s entertaining to see the deer, fox, coyotes, pine marten, and wolves that pass by. Add the returning variety of songbirds and drumming grouse makes it easy to forget the world’s woes and appreciate life.









 


 On the water I went straight for a favored rocky bay that's proven itself fine smallmouth bass habitat. I hoped the sun-bathed shoreline warmed the water a little and was hopeful for the yellow-bellied Dahlberg diver I’d tied. I was casting well and enjoying working the fly about every way I could think of – let it sit for long seconds, twitch it, pop it, walk it, strip it into a dive – but after literally pounding the shallows with no hits I should have known the bass weren’t up yet. Smallmouth like water over fifty degrees and 65 is much better. Of course it was too cold, but I wasn’t completely unprepared, so grabbing the other rod and casting to deeper edges with a weighted streamer on sinking line was plan B. Same results. I tried a couple more places that will only get better as warmer weather approaches before I steered the boat into a back bay where a creek empties into it. Rocks and wood in the water looked right and my cast next to the downed tree paid off.  


The bass struck with a splash and a good fight was on. Playing the fish on the rod and turning the boat with the foot-controlled trolling motor has become standard procedure ‘cause I often fish alone. A decent fish can pull the boat where I don’t want it, so pay attention.  

I thought the fish was bigger than it was, early season anticipation I suppose, but still a nice smallmouth that measured a bit under 20 inches. It was the first of the season and I wouldn’t complain to land many more like it. 

I motored into the mouth of the creek and made a cast to the grassy bank. Again, a fish attacked the deerhair with a splash and suddenly things were looking up. When I saw it was a pike, I netted it quickly before it cut my leader. I didn’t want to lose my fly and was glad the fluoro leader held. I often use a wire bite guard but for some reason I shunned it that day.  

My bass bug was working, and my early season casting was fine. After replacing the fluorocarbon tippet I eased along to another target. I wasn’t so lucky when the next pike hit – a short heavy tug and the line went limp. My fly was gone, bit off in a nano-second. A lesson I’ve been taught many times, but obviously haven’t quite learned. 



 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Gunning




 It was the end of Autunm and winter was on the way, but it still took a while to get things put away. The effort was made to keep fly fishing for as long as possible with a late season outing for muskie, and an even later steelhead trip. But finally the rods were slid into their tubes, the boats stored under cover, motors winterized with the thought of staying ahead of the cold and snow; and the shotgun was uncased.



I turns out there was really no hurry. Winter didn’t come. Well, that is, not at its usual time. By Christmas we’d only received a couple of short-lived dustings of snow, and we’d enjoyed one of the longest, and warmest snow-free grouse hunting seasons I’ve ever experienced. And the grouse numbers were up, way up. Social media was bombed with dead grouse proudly lined up on tailgates by about anyone who could lift a shotgun. 



Back in 1970 F. Phillips Williamson put together an anthology for Amwell Press, mostly about duck hunting. Introducing one of the chapters he wrote about guns, “... the one gun still being manufactured that will operate, day in day out, in rain, sleet, snow, dust and salt is the Browning Auto 5, known for years as the Browning Automatic. The Remington Model 11, now long since discontinued, was the only autoloading shotgun that could match it for reliability.” Of course, since then a lot of newer tech and systems have been built into newer autoloaders, but if they are really better is an arguable statement. For some time I sort of snubbed the automatic loading shotgun, except for waterfowl, where shooting heavy loads from the Auto 5 produced little recoil thanks to its operating system.  

A little over a year ago Grandpa’s old Remington Model 11 was dug out and brought out to the gun club. I’ve talked about this gun before, and how I could feel the good vibes shooting this old gun that’s been in the family since 1940. These days I’m mostly a grouse and woodcock hunter and that old 16 gauge is far from the classic grouse gun, but I had choke tubes installed in the full chokebore barrel, and it suddenly became a versatile upland shooter. This past season it’s the only gun I used hunting.  







It's not unusual to see other wildlife when we're out in the woods. One interesting afternoon I was moving down an old trail and came face to face with a moose. In the seconds that followed I tried to remember how close it was to the rutting season, and considered this moose might be looking for trouble. Fortunately, I got a hold of Gabbi before she saw it and snapped a quick photo as we retreated. 


I’m not a young man and I don’t hunt from light to dawn anymore. My setter, Gabbi, isn’t so young either, so though we hunted many days, our hunting consisted of basically working a cover or two with a break in between. This past fall, it seemed enough. I love eating ruffed grouse and I can’t think of any wild game that’s better, but I don’t hunt for food. If I did, I’d likely hunt differently. Besides, we get our groceries at the store and so far, we’ve never gone hungry. Still, those tender grouse breasts, grilled quickly over coals make my mouth water just thinking about them. Our last hunt was a day before the season ended, December 30. Gabbi and I took a short walk through some woods near home. We moved six grouse, four she pointed and two wild flushes in just over an hour. I was offered three reasonable shots, and I was satisfied. 



The snow did come, finally. It started four days ago with a light, drizzly falling that made roads and walkways slippery. It hasn’t stopped yet but last night the temps dropped and we woke to six inches of the fluffy stuff. When I go out to plow the driveway it’ll be a foot deep. If it stops now. Tomorrow is predicted to be below zero temperatures. It was bound to come – I guess winter has arrived. 



Thursday, August 17, 2023

Warm days, cool nights

Yesterday morning I stood out on the deck watching the day begin. Mid-August, 41 degrees, I was barefoot, wearing pajamas under a heavy robe and enjoying breakfast while Gabbi patrolled the perimeter of the yard. A cup of one of those hearty granola cereals drenched in ice-cold milk, and topped with a handful of fresh raspberries, seemed perfect. Strong coffee to follow. By afternoon the temperature would rise to 80 and a strong wind would bring a thunderstorm.

It’s easy to drift into a contemplative mood, sort of melancholy, on a morning like this, waiting for the sun to rise over the treetops. I don’t tend to look back at the past much, certainly not to dwell on it, but sometimes you wonder how life might have been had a different route been taken or another answer been given. Mostly, though, I think about more down-to-earth things: like how musician friends and poets make a living with no other visible means of support. Or how about a couple of those deck boards that soon need replacing. Or why did I miss so many birds at the skeet club last week? You know, stuff like that. 


The fly fishing for smallmouth bass on Vermilion has slowed way down, as it does every summer. They go deep, they fill up on crawfish, they become nocturnal – I don’t know, I’ve never gotten a good handle on it. And the last two river outings have been nothing to brag about, either. Four decent smallmouths on the St. Louis, a half-dozen on an un-named flowage. Most on streamers. 










But Karr Lake, only a few minutes from home, has a healthy and eager population of bluegills along with some decent largemouth bass. All sixty-nine acres of lily pad covered shoreline are just right for a small boat or canoe and I seldom see anyone else there. Except for Pastor Don. The good pastor is a neighbor and enjoys padding his beautiful wood/canvas canoe on the lake early mornings. Probably helps him come up with a meaningful sermon for Sunday service. Whenever he sees me out there, he paddles over for a chat. He’s good company. 








My bluegill poppers are all close to the same. Most of my fly-tying material is mail order, and I received a pack of yellow deer hair I wanted for some bass bugs. But the hair is frustratingly short, too short for the large poppers I wanted to tie, and I nearly tossed it away. Instead, I marked the bag “short" and stuffed it in my materials box. Turns out it works fine for a small bluegill popper. It’s a quick tie: two small clumps of hair spun on the hook, no stacking or packing, and a disk of foam on the face. A quick trim job and it’s done. 








Even when the bite is slow the bluegills are a pretty reliable source of fun, and there’s always the chance for a surprise largemouth. Good fishing! 








Thursday, June 22, 2023

the TUG...


 I was up at 4:30, wanting to get to the lake while it was still early and, supposedly, while the smallmouth bass would be active in the shallows. It’s generally considered early morns and evenings make for the best still-water bass fishing – a belief that holds true for pursuing any wild game. Except, that is, for flowing rivers. Whenever I get with my river running friends, we never seem to get on the river much before 10 a.m. They say the water needs to warm up for the bite to get good, and I don’t doubt it, though I’ve never been on those streams as the sun was breaking.  




This time of year, even at the 4:30 hour the eastern sky is lighting and the birds are singing. Driving past the open hay fields of my neighbors, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should’ve already been on the lake. All I had to do that morning was back my truck up to the boat and hook it up, which was accomplished while the coffee was brewing. I downed an apple and a banana for breakfast on the road, and brought an apple and some cheese and crackers for a snack in the boat. The parking lot at the boat ramp was empty when I came over the hill, and I pushed the boat into the lake before 6 a.m. I was on a mission to try some new bass poppers. 

A few years ago, my friends and I were standing around next to the drift boats discussing the days fishing when a fellow approached to have a look at the boats and announced that he worked for the Montana Fly Company. He gazed over the boats quickly but wanted us to know he was credited with developing the hot nymph at the time. I don’t recall if it was called the pink squirrel or purple haze, but it was popular on the Montana river we were floating and the local fly shops were well stocked with them. I must have bought a few, but I don’t remember them being any better than any of the other flies we were using. 

I’ve succumbed to the temptation of inventing my own flies, too. Mostly bass-bug type flies, but there are a couple trout flies that worked. A favorite dry fly is basically a cheap copy of the Adams. I’d be wrong to claim I invented it, or even developed it – I just tied it with materials I had on hand and added a touch of red to the tail on the advice of an old timer who knows every brook trout stream in the area. That bit of floss probably turns the fly into an attracter rather than a true mayfly imitation and a purist would scoff at it. Then there’s the nymph I tie entirely with the fur and hair of a pine marten I trapped, save for the gold bead and rib. It’s a generic looking thing that catches trout, like every fly does, when it works. 

It’s the bass flies where I’ve done the most damage. In a category where just about anything goes, I’ve put together some flies that were truly mistakes. They failed on the water and looks; I regret that a few others have seem them – I can still hear the laughter. I have a pile of those rejects that I keep only to one day cut apart to save the hooks.  

I love catching bass on top-water offerings and I enjoy tying and using deer-hair poppers and divers. I have some that are years old and still tight and effective while others have faded and loosened from good use. Some folks coat their deer-hair with resins that gives them an almost plastic coating, but that’s not for me. Like everyone, I modify mine with colors, spots, and stripes to suit myself, though I’ve simplified the process – it takes a long enough to build a deer hair popper without all the fancy stuff – but I certainly didn’t invent the popper or Dahlberg Diver. 

I did come up with something that works, however. I was thinking of a topwater fly that would be quick and easy to tie. You know, a “guide fly”. It only consists of a couple of materials, including a single piece of craft foam. Tied in three colors, so far, I’ve been testing them for a few days with good results. The rocky shorelines of the big lake are twenty miles from home and a favorite place of mine. After the early season rush of walleye anglers, it’s surprising how the activity slows down. There are multiple boat access ramps on the lake, and there are always some boats out there, but I fish the bays in solitude. It probably helps that I avoid it on weekends. 



 I started with the yellow and hooked a bass on the third cast. These hard fighting chunky bass actually pull the boat around! They say the tug is the drug, and had I just been fishing I would have stayed with it. But in the interest of Research & Development I switched it up for the green one. That worked, too. And I’m happy to report I caught bass on the white popper, as well. I haven’t introduced them to the world yet, meaning a few of my fishing buddies, but look forward to answering when they ask what fly are you catching all those bass on? 



Five hours of casting, catching, and maneuvering the boat, sometimes in a bothersome wind, seemed like enough. I’d be home for lunch. When I pulled the boat up the ramp there were only two other vehicles in the parking lot. Nice. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Gun Club

 

It’s a fun club – no competitive league scores, teams, or trophies. We use score sheets mainly to keep track of expenses and we keep those as low as possible. Just enough to keep operating. We have two skeet ranges and one 40-foot tower that’ll test your shooting skills. One of the skeet ranges is usually set up as a “wobble skeet” shoot, and I won’t try to explain the set-up here, but if you’re feeling good about your standard skeet score the wobble course will bring you down a notch or two. I love it, and seldom shoot regular skeet anymore. 




 


We have somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty paid members, men and women, though seldom see more than half that on any given day, especially during the winter, and we’re always open to the public. As might be expected, just before hunting seasons open, we see some new faces. And we put on a couple of events: a springtime wild game feed and a summer picnic. We host the local high school shooting team, as well. 




Our members are made up of all kinds of folks. Some are serious shooters with dedicated target guns who shoot at clubs around the state and beyond. And some of us are bird hunters with our field guns just trying to keep our shooting eye straight a couple of times a month.  

                                                        


 


We gather in the clubhouse, fill the woodstove and coffee pot, and sometimes tell stories more than we shoot -- dogs, ducks, grouse and fishing are favorite subjects. There's usually a crockpot filled with something delicious, and everyone pitches in with the snacks, especially around Christmas. It’s as enjoyable as can be.  

                                                      . 


 


I lay pretty low in the winter, snowshoeing and skiing around home. mostly. But I do look forward to those afternoons at the gun club. 



 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Old Fashioned Donuts




 The morning started with anticipation and a quick and favored breakfast of hot toasted English muffins melting a generous share of country butter and a healthy dripping of local honey. Add a handful of chilled blueberries for good measure. The sun would be up in less than an hour and we had a way to go to the desired cover. My slim Silver Pigeon was cased and ready. The shooting vest was hanging from the hook in my truck with a fistful of yellow Federal 7 1/2s in the pocket. Gabi was spinning at the door, eager to take her place on the front seat, knowing what was ahead.  

The season started a little too warm and the cover a little too thick for good grouse hunting, as usual, but October’s chill straightened that out. There appeared to be plenty of birds around and social media sites were plastered with advice on where to find them and photos of dead grouse. Gabi and I were doing fine, and the first birds of the year fell to my grandfather’s 16 gauge – a gun I wanted to add my own experiences to the history of that old Remington. 


Sometime along the way I switched to the twenty, a gun I believe I shoot best and the gun I’d hunt out the season with. After a stop to refill my coffee, we drove to the cover. What used to be a logging road is overgrown to a single-file path trafficked by more wildlife than people. A quarter mile from the trailhead the beavers moved in and flooded the trail, leaving a narrow crossing on the dam itself. I’ve hunted this place for years and have seen it develop from prime grouse cover to the older woods it is now. But it’s a picturesque hike with a bird dog – a mix of aspen, birch and pine with several ponds along the way. Ducks, geese, and swans are often spotted, and we always find grouse.  

Gabi raced across the beaver dam well ahead of me and I heard her bell drop into the thick stuff left of the trail. I was climbing the grade from the pond when her bell fell silent. She was a good ways out and after a stumbling, ducking search I spotted her locked up at the edge of alders looking straight at me. The grouse blew up and pumped for altitude when my shot caught it. Ah, the smell of burnt power! Feeling good, I pushed back to the trail, keeping Gabi close. Five minutes later she was pointing again, a bit off the right side of the trail. Gun at the ready, I ducked low balsams branches when a grouse jumped from the tree and offered no shot. A second grouse was taken over her point a bit later and I was enjoying the beautiful day with a fine dog and the comfortable heft of two birds in the bag. Then I missed the next four birds, sending seven shots with no results. That was the start of my shooting slump. 



 My dictionary defines a slump as “an unaccountable decline in effectiveness.” Well, ok, it’s not like I’m a crack shot to begin with, so any decline is noticeable. I’m still haunted by a missed shot that I knew I would miss because of poor gun mounting: the grouse rose above the bare treetops and offered an easy left-right crossing shot. I rushed the shot and failed to raise the buttstock to my shoulder where it belongs. I thus didn’t get my cheek down on the stock and I knew I was off even as I pulled the trigger. Twice.  

Nash Buckingham wrote, “Swift, comfortable, accurate gun mounting that coordinates timing, forward allowance and barrel level (a trio not easily assembled) is a must.” You’d think by this stage of the game I’d have that down pat. Excuses are easy to come by and frustration can be tough to overcome, but the grouse win more often than not, so bid them farewell and hope they live to breed next spring.  


  


Some shooting friends and I were discussing the demise of little cafes that used to be around. You know the kind where you enter and take whatever is available, a chair at a table, a seat in a booth, or stool at the counter. The smell of bacon fills the room in the mornings, burgers in the afternoon. A waitress approaches carrying a pot of coffee. Pies are in the glass case. And there are donuts. Oh, those donuts!  


Whenever I’m hunting or fishing in the area, a stop at Patten’s Cafe is called for. The usual cliental is made up of loggers, road workers, and sportsmen; those retired lead the storytelling. I always stop for two plain cake donuts. I assume they are fried in lard or Crisco, a little crunchy on the outside and soft, but dry inside. You’ll want coffee. Delicious! 


 


 


 


 


 


 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Fine times

 There’s not a thing more peaceful than being on a still lake early in the morning. Nothing that I can think of, anyway. Other than the birds singing, the only sound is my fly line coursing through the air and the plopping popper being stripped back in. It won’t be long before the drone of an outboard motor out on the main lake will reach my ears, but for now the lake is mine.



I could consider this lake my home waters, but there is plenty of the lake I have yet to explore. Partly because I tend to fish a few favored spots I’ve found and partly because this lake covers nearly 40,000 acres with over 300 miles of shoreline. Of course, there are many boat access landings on it, and I can be on one in less than twenty miles from my house. As the crow flies the southernmost bay is only ten miles away.

There is plenty of development along the shores, more than a guy like me cares to see – everything from small, sagging cabins built by iron miners back when they could afford a chunk of lakeshore to the multi-million-dollar mansions of the wealthy, mostly absentee owners who are, well, mostly absent. Progress, I suppose.

Still, there are miles of undeveloped shoreline, rocky bays and islands where I go and spend hours casting poppers and streamers for bass, pike, and muskies. Some of the fish are big, some are not. Sometimes the bite is on. Sometimes it's just a boat ride. Pack a lunch. Sip some coffee. Look around and wish it was always like this.



I was on the lake again the other day and pushed my boat off at a favorite landing. Early season madness was over, the walleye fishing had evened out and there was less rush to get on the water. Most folks were either still in the sack or having breakfast and thinking about mowing the lawn instead of fishing. I was glad that no one was around, because right from the launch I drop the electric trolling motor and start working the rocky shoreline. I can’t be the only bass angler that recognizes good habitat, but it seems people are eager to get away from the boat ramp and I’d sooner not advertise good fishing holes fifty feet from the dock.

While it would be nice if it was fishing anytime, all the time, of course it’s not. There’s been some tough weather this season and though plenty of the country is seeing worse, the weathercasters continually warn of approaching severe storms. A few nights ago I stood at the bedroom window listening to a roaring wind and trees cracking, followed by buckets of rain. Luckily no buildings were damaged and the electricity was only out for a short time, but I’m still not finished cleaning up downed trees. But the trees aren’t going anywhere so tomorrow I’m going fishing.